‘Location, location, location’ is the key to understanding Australia’s Indian Ocean Territories (IOT). Christmas Island is some 1500km from Australia with Cocos (Keeling) Islands some 2000km; both are much closer to the Indonesian Archipelago. The Federal Government administers the IOTs through the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts, with most services delivered by the Western Australian government, contracted private companies and other Federal Government agencies. The IOT’s remoteness impacts both islands in similar ways although in terms of geography and history, both are very different.
Christmas Island is the larger of the two islands and is the top of an ancient underwater volcano eroded to form a plateau ringed by a cliff-faced shoreline. The island has a land area of about 135 sqkms with its highest point 360 metres above the sea. People first landed on the island in 1688, arriving in the sailing ship Cygnet whose crew included William Dampier. In the late 1890s, a British company began phosphate mining and exporting it for fertiliser. The Japanese occupied the island from March 1942 until the British returned in October 1945. The Japanese sent many of the island’s population to prison camps on Java.
Christmas Island became part of Australia in 1958 and at the 2021 census had a male-heavy population of some 1700 people. Phosphate Resources Limited employs some 200 people or about 40% of the total workforce. The phosphate mine’s current lease ends in 2034 although there are sufficient commercial resources to sustain mining until 2039. Eco-tourism is hoped to gradually take over, especially that coming from nearby South East Asia. The present immigration detention industry is unlikely to be sustainable long-term.
Cocos’s geography is quite different in being made up of 27 coral islands, of which only West Island and Home Island are inhabited. The atoll’s highest point is 5m with a total land area of about 26 sqkms. The atoll was first mapped in 1609 with settlement and significant commercial copra production for export beginning in the late 1820s; this ceased in 1987. In World War Two, Cocos was initially regularly attacked by Japanese bombers and then later became a major British air force base with some 8300 personnel stationed there.
Sovereignty was transferred to Australia in 1955 with the inhabitants overwhelmingly voting to become Australians in 1988. In the 2021 census the islands had a balanced population with some 500 Cocos Malays, who mostly practise Sunni Islam, living on Home Island and another 100 people living on West Island, mainly of Caucasian heritage. The majority of the employment is in the public sector involving providing administration, education, health and local government services under contract to the Federal Government through the Cocos Islands Cooperative Society. There is an embryonic eco-tourism sector involving some small businesses, with hopes of expansion to possibly include Muslim-friendly tourism from South East Asia.
Strategically, the island’s ports and airfields are key assets; the former for receiving supplies and especially fuel, and the latter for their military usefulness. Christmas Island’s port is exposed, hard to use, subject to ocean swells and very weather dependent with October and March problematic months. Ships are moored to specialised ‘deep sea’ mooring buoys, allowing vessels of up to 8 metres draught and 190 metres length to offload their cargo using on-shore cranes. In the Cocos atoll, ships anchor in a deep part of the inner lagoon with cargo offloaded by the ship’s crane onto a ‘dumb’ barge which is towed to and offloaded at Home Island, and then reloaded onto a landing barge and sent across to West Island. Both islands are wholly reliant on Zentner Shipping’s M/V Borkum which makes regular supply runs from Perth.
The islands’ airfields are similar: Christmas Island’s is 2100m long with Cocos (on West Island) 2,400m. Both have scheduled jet services, restricted parking spaces and limited aviation fuel stockholdings. Most military movements are into Cocos which is being upgraded to enhance P-8 maritime surveillance operations, with work beginning in 2023 for completion in 2026. The upgrade’s cost has increased from $184m to $568m, creating unease in the island community over its purpose and impact. The latest Federal budget added $7m funding to handle the new MC-55 Peregrine electronic surveillance aircraft, aiming to complete in 2024.
Enhancing Their Defence Future
The changing geostrategic situation is potentially making the IOT of increased importance given their proximity to Asia and location deep in the Indian Ocean. There are implications from this.
First, the two airfields are vulnerable to attack and capture as World War Two revealed. In many situations this would be an acceptable risk as most possible adversaries would be very distant and well beyond the Indonesian archipelago. Even so, thought might be given to defending the islands from being captured, the worst case scenario. To meet this, options might include being able to quickly deploy equipment such as the proposed naval strike missile equipped Thales Strikemaster and the short-range ground-based air defence system being acquired under project LAND 19 Phase 7B.
Second, the islands supply chains are barely adequate for existing civilian needs. A major constraint is the poor port facilities at both locations. These need to be significantly upgraded, a step that in addition to its military utility would help both island’s economies, particularly in allowing tourism growth.
Third, storage facilities on both islands could be improved. Both airfields would be more useful as forward operating locations with increased jet fuel storage while suitable warehousing would allow aircraft support equipment, maintenance items and spare parts to be placed on the islands when necessary. In addition consideration might also be given to building small aircraft weapons storage bunkers to allow combat aircraft to be rearmed during a conflict.
The IOT have seemingly slipped from the gaze of Australian defence strategists but this should change given the fast pace of geostrategic change. With some focussed enhancements, the islands could potentially become key strategically. It’s all about location, location, location.
Dr Peter Layton is Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute. This article is also published in the WA Defence Review 2022-2023.